I want to pause here to make something clear: This article is not about superhero comics -- I know for a fact that there are comics that have explored these issues from every angle. I'm talking specifically about the movies that are suddenly dominating the box office and -- more importantly -- dominating the foreign box offices. So now let's talk about how you never see Bruce Wayne taking painful liquid shits in a hospital bed.
While sanitized, epic violence shows up in all PG and PG-13 movies (The Lord of the Rings never shows us a screaming Orc dying slowly due to a gangrenous arrow wound to the scrotum), superhero movies have it written into the reality of the universe: The protagonists simply can't be seriously wounded. In The Avengers, the second funniest scene comes after the credits, when it's revealed that the apocalyptic battle has left the good guys so utterly unscathed that they all go out to eat at a restaurant afterward. They don't even need to shower.
Even in the "gritty, realistic" Dark Knight, when Bruce suffers several falls that should have broken every bone in his body, he is shown to have (gasp!) several bruises on his back and a minor cut on his arm.
Hilariously, Alfred sees this and is taken aback in horror.
"My God ... your one-man war against an army of murderers has left you with the gruesome wounds of a man who has played one game of flag football."
So? What's Wrong With That?
Did you notice something about that scene? Bruce Wayne, at his most wounded and vulnerable, is still sexy as hell. Funny how we never see him suffer the kind of wound that requires him to piss through a catheter for the rest of his life, or have his wife wipe his ass for him because his arms don't work, or get skin grafts to fix oozing burn wounds on his face. The wounds don't in any way interfere with the fun.
"Oh, no, he wasn't fighting crime. That was just the injuries he sustained during routine training exercises."
Yes, The Dark Knight Rises puts Commissioner Gordon in the hospital, but when two of Bane's thugs come to kill him, he jumps out of his bed and effortlessly murders them both. The Iron Man movies make it clear that when made to fight without his suit, Tony Stark still absolutely kicks ass. And why wouldn't he? He's a 40-something billionaire whose life has been a steady stream of drunken parties and all-nighters spent troubleshooting circuitry schematics. Clearly no grizzled mercenary would stand a chance.
Hey, here's a question -- how many New Yorkers died in the devastating alien attack in The Avengers? We don't know -- the movie doesn't mention it. Of the ones who did, how many were due to friendly fire? You know, from all of those stray bullets Black Widow was firing at the skyscrapers, and all of the missiles/laser blasts of Tony's that missed? Oh, right -- superheroes never accidentally shoot the wrong person, thanks to their magical powers of certainty. Which means that in these films, violence is always the most responsible choice: It is absolutely painless for the heroes, and it comes with no possibility of collateral damage, injury to innocent bystanders, or unintended consequences.
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"You son of a bitch. You will pay for this."
"What, so you're saying Joss Whedon is propagating some kind of devious pro-violence agenda?"
No, of course not. He's just telling stories in the same style in which they were told to him growing up. They're just giving us what we want, as demonstrated by ticket sales. That's why it bothers me when the one overwhelming lesson winds up being ...
To demonstrate this, I'm going to show you the opposite. Star Wars grabs you from the first scene with the striking image of a tiny, fragile ship being pursued by a giant, terrifying behemoth that blots out the stars.
Shown here for the uncountable masses who have never seen Star Wars before.
As soon as we see it, we instinctively root for the little ship. Why? How do we know they're not criminals who kidnapped a bunch of orphans from the big ship and are trying to escape with them back to the infamous toddler fighting arenas of Alderaan?
It's because we instantly recognize it as the hero story we've been telling each other for thousands of years: A scrappy nobody takes on the powerful bad guys and rises to the challenge through sheer courage and hard work. The vulnerable hobbits walk barefoot to Mount Doom and destroy the ring, John McClane walks barefoot through broken glass to kill the terrorists, the Karate Kid practices barefoot on a tree stump in order to kick the evil karate master to death (note: most writers are foot fetishists).
Now let's look at the superhero vs. supervillain match-ups:
Superman vs. Lex Luthor. One is an utterly invincible, immortal god with infinite strength; the other is, uh ... a balding middle-aged man with the strength of one Gene Hackman.
If two cops can easily contain the bad guy, he's not a formidable opponent.
How about Batman vs. the Joker? A muscle-bound martial artist equipped with body armor and a billion dollars' worth of weapons versus a thin homeless man in clown makeup with several crippling mental illnesses.
"Wait, how about the Avengers vs. Loki! Loki is a demigod!"
Yes ... and the good guys merely have a much stronger demigod, and an infinitely strong, invincible monster, and an invincible, genetically engineered supersoldier, and a billionaire wearing a weapon of mass destruction, and the backing of an organization with unlimited wealth, weapons, and resources at its disposal. They even give themselves a massive handicap just to make the odds a little less laughable by letting Hawkeye tag along. It's not like the movie tries to cover for this -- the best comedy scene in the film is when the Hulk grabs the main villain and whips him around like a rag doll.
Don't get me wrong -- I laughed my ass off at that scene. But then I realized that I had paid money to watch the New York Yankees blow out the Toledo Mud Hens 26-0. The outcome is never in doubt; the whole movie is just seeing how much the good guys would win by. Hell, the only lethal threat is a missile launched by their own team.
So? What's Wrong With That?
First, just from a storytelling point of view, look at how the writers have to bend over backward to create some kind of drama for the superhuman heroes. The only challenge to the Avengers is their internal bickering. The only thing stopping Batman, Spider-Man, or the Hulk is angst over how hard it is to be awesome on a godly level. The challenge always has to come from inside, because, you know, their abilities let them laugh in the face of anything their enemies can come up with.
But then there is the uneasy sense of what this says about us as a culture.
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That we are untouchable, baby.
Because we used to root for the underdog -- we had a whole decade of movies in the Die Hard genre that all featured a lone, scared, outmanned commoner taking on a well-armed opponent through sheer heart and determination. Those underdog stories have been replaced at the top of the box office by tales of unstoppable forces of nature beating the piss out of laughably outmatched opponents (even the Die Hard series is like this now, as of Part 4). Sure, you still get stories like The Hunger Games, but they're handily outnumbered by both superhero franchises and other films that follow the same "invincible badasses who answer to no one" template (RDJ's Sherlock Holmes franchise, James Bond, The Fast and Furious movies, anything made by Michael Bay).
And that makes me think of this quote from the Dark Knight, where Harvey Dent says:
"You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain."
Of course he's right -- in real life, Apple Computer goes from the scrappy underdog to the arrogant giant everyone is trying to take down. George Lucas goes from the hungry indie filmmaker to the unfeeling corporate billionaire who only cares about merchandising dollars. In the real world, the Rebels don't beat the Empire; they become the Empire. They build their own Death Star but remember to name it something else and close the exhaust port.
Maybe something like "Happy Space Ball."
And I can guarantee you that each and every person in that situation finds that they no longer enjoy underdog stories -- they know that if they root for the underdog, they're rooting against themselves. When Sylvester Stallone got rich, suddenly the Rocky movies were all about the millionaire hero retaining his title against scrappy newcomers, and eventually we all started laughing at him. But now, we're all on board with that idea. In 2013, we are all Stallones.
"Come on! These movies are supposed to be light-hearted, exciting escapism! It's fun to watch the Hulk punch monsters out of the sky!" I know it is, I've seen The Avengers seven times (thank you, Amazon Instant Streaming!). But here's the thing: After every article like this that we publish, we're bombarded with fans screaming, "Why do you have to shit on every movie? Why can't you just sit back and enjoy it? WHY DO YOU HAVE TO OVERTHINK EVERYTHING?!?!"
OK, first off, familiarize yourself with the keyboard. Specifically this part of it.
But ask yourself: Why is there that knee-jerk rejection of any effort to "overthink" pop culture? Why would you ever be afraid that looking too hard at something will ruin it? If the government built a huge, mysterious device in the middle of your town and immediately surrounded it with a fence that said, "NOTHING TO SEE HERE!" I'm pretty damned sure you wouldn't rest until you knew what the hell that was -- the fact that they don't want you to know means it can't be good.
Well, when any idea in your brain defends itself with "Just relax! Don't look too close!" you should immediately be just as suspicious. It usually means something ugly is hiding there. Here's a video of a bunch of baby animals struggling to stay awake.
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